When Diversity Is Your Life, Your Art, and Your Business
Sharron Levine teaches corporations how to think like the customers they sell to
I am an immigrant and an American citizen.
I am brown-skinned and highly educated.
I was raised Roman Catholic.
My husband of 31 years is Jewish.
I am Jewish.
I speak three languages — English, Spanish and French.
I work in diversity and inclusion. My job is to educate industry and business leaders about the value and importance of both hiring for leadership positions women, minorities, and people of different cultures and backgrounds, as well as providing opportunities to minority and women-owned businesses. “I am proof of what I am trying to teach you,” I say to company heads and human resource departments of small-to-large businesses, most often [run by] middle-aged white men. I had a 27-year career in general corporate and real estate finance law. With reams of research, data, and analysis to back up what I already know to be true, I tell them that if they continue to put their staff and their consumers into boxes, they will box themselves in and eventually — soon — bury themselves, taking their companies down with them.
Corporate America likes boxes. They’ve liked them for more than a century. But the thing about boxes is that there just aren’t enough of them for me, or for all the other immigrants and children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants and great-grandchildren of immigrants who live in the United States. And there aren’t enough shapes of boxes either.
This bridging of cultural gaps that I do as my main gig is also, thematically, what I do in my side gig. In fact, the tagline for AdamAlexis, my handbag company, is “building bridges through fashion.” My side-gig company supports and preserves the livelihoods of Mexican artisans whose age-old craft traditions are being lost to mass producers seeking cheap labor and inferior products. I bring their handmade items from small communities in Mexico to the US consumer. And I pay them for their craft. When I look at and feel the leather bags I sell, carved by hands using a knife, a nail and a hammer, I know and understand that the designs, the skill, the hard work being done in a small enclave in Guadalajara, Mexico is about experiences — the experiences of the individual who crafted the bag and the experiences of the generations who came before that person in a civilization of people different from, and older than, ours. We don’t have this particular skill in the US. At least I haven’t found it. That’s diversity and inclusion.
And in reality, [diversity] is my home gig, too. Just look at me, my kids, my husband, and the civilizations we represent. My daughter and son are 49% percent Ashkenazi Jewish, 19.5% West African and 19.5% South Asian. And, according to 23andMe, the remaining percentages are either minute mixes of a number of other backgrounds or “unassigned.” It turns out, I’ve been working in diversity and inclusion in some way — if not for myself — since the age of 18 when I came to the United States from Jamaica. I am now 60.
“It’s difficult to put Sharron in a box” — many bosses said about me over the past three decades. Never directly to me; but, colleagues shared with me the chatter they’d heard.
“We no longer have the luxury of putting people in boxes,” I tell my clients as I work to change the hearts and minds of people, many of whom haven’t been exposed to cultures other than their own and therefore, simply, don’t understand them. My job is to enlighten businesses and industries on the benefits and necessity of diversity in leadership.
Therefore, I am a teacher, lobbyist, sociologist, psychologist, historian, anthropologist, bridge builder and change maker. My goal is to preserve the skills of and lend a voice to, hardworking people who are being overlooked and underrepresented.
Our business leaders need to be thinking about the value of diversity and differing perspectives, about an individual’s experiences and how that can translate to the inclusion of more perspectives which can, in turn, lead to better business decisions. The hope is, then, that will [lead] to more equitable treatment and inclusion of others who are different from ourselves and, finally, to greater harmony.
Unfortunately, it’s a slow process. I have learned to measure my successes with a very tiny calculator.
The #1 Secret to Building Your Personal Brand (TheCovey, February 2018 issue)
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